Though the horror was far from home, local officials knew they weren't ready. Now, some changes are in place; others are pending.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002
Though physically far removed from the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Hernando County was not immune to the fears that followed.
Hoax threats in the subsequent months, including powder mailed to the county courthouse and discovered in a Home Depot restroom, raised the anxiety level another notch. The obvious question emerged: Was the county prepared for an attack here?
At the time, the answer was a clear "no."
Few government workers, firefighters or law enforcement officers knew how to handle hazardous materials. The county lacked a terrorism response plan. Public buildings proved easy to enter and difficult to secure.
A year later, county agencies are in a somewhat better position.
They have trained several people to deal with chemical, radioactive and biological weapons, joined a regional terrorism task force and created a hazardous materials response team. They have improved processes, such as mail handling, and stepped up security at public buildings.
Yet these actions have been tempered by financial realities. County commissioners scaled back plans to spend about $250,000 on new protection equipment for government buildings, for instance, and the government center evacuation plan remains incomplete.
"We're moving forward, but we're moving forward carefully and cautiously," said Danny Roberts, the interim emergency management director.
The Sheriff's Office has focused on expanding its capabilities and its reach into the community.
Patrol deputies have been taught how to deal with weapons of mass destruction, with some trained to command the response to such an incident, Sheriff Richard Nugent said. Four deputies are now trained and equipped to handle airborne or aerosol materials, he said, and one deputy is a bomb technician.
The department coordinates with the Tampa Bay Regional Bomb Squad and receives daily briefings from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. An officer from MacDill Air Force Base also has spoken with all high-ranking sheriff's employees on security issues facing the region, Nugent said.
Deputies have heightened their interaction with the Islamic community, he said.
"Obviously, they're concerned," Nugent said. "We have increased our patrols around the mosque."
The Sheriff's Office also has worked with the school district to create a unified response plan to violence in schools.
Barry Crowley, the school district's safety officer, said many of the district's security measures had begun well before Sept. 11, although the terrorist attacks stiffened its resolve.
"Most of what we do is geared toward Columbine issues more than terrorism issues," Crowley said, referring to the 1999 high school shootings in Colorado.
Immediately after anthrax-tainted letters showed up in the U.S. Capitol last fall, the district implemented new measures to isolate and open mail. The effort remains intact, and several schools are looking at purchasing sealed, transparent boxes with protective gloves attached to reach inside and open mail securely, he said.
The district also began receiving bomb threats after Sept. 11, Crowley said. It installed an enhanced phone system that traced the calls, and many of the callers were caught. The calls have dwindled since then, he said.
Crowley received hazardous materials training through the county, and about 250 other employees who have contact with the public and students were taught first-responder emergency skills.
He said the district had been working since the mid 1990s to secure school campuses and has had cameras on buses for years. School buses are secured in a compound when not in use, he added.
"We have cared about buildings and people for a long time," Crowley said. "The way we do business, we were more prepared for this than they (county government) were. They were prepared to help us, but they weren't prepared to help themselves."
The county saw its failings firsthand when it faced an evacuation Oct. 11 because of an anthrax hoax. The result was chaotic, with questions raised about the chain of command and the safety of employees.
The man who sent the letter, Donald John Kalter, was caught and recently pleaded guilty to two counts of using a hoax weapon of mass destruction. He was sentenced to four years in prison, seven years of probation, 250 hours of community service and mental health counseling.
Since the scare, officials have rewritten the emergency evacuation plan, said Pat Fagan, the parks and facilities director. The county's insurance representative has evaluated the buildings for terrorism protections, Fagan said, and several improvements are planned.
The government intends to add a new lock and alarm system to the exterior doors of its buildings and will try to promote use of the main entrances, he said. It will not, however, block access to stairwells or doorways.
"Our problem in this facility is it wasn't built for security," Fagan said.
Courthouse garages, now open, will be closed to the public, with access limited to people with keys, Fagan said. "The judges had concerns that it is wide open."
Aging metal detectors have been replaced at security points, too.
The clerk's office stopped treating its mail specially after departments complained that mail was being held up, and they had "no real fear," said Karen Nicolai, the clerk of the Circuit Court.
Video cameras went up in all parts of the courthouse, Nicolai said, with monitors in the sheriff's station in the basement. All doors to her department offices are now locked at 5 p.m., she said, whereas latecomers were previously served until the last employee went home.
"I hate that in a way," Nicolai said. "We've always been able to have a small-town feel. If someone was here, we waited on them. Now we can't do that. We have to beware the weirdos."
The county has adopted a terrorism consequence management plan that sets forth guidelines for incident response and management, communication with the public and such issues as evacuation, mass care and decontamination. It also has enhanced protection of local water sources and conducted a terrorism response drill.
Commissioners approved $248,000 to start a hazardous materials response team, which includes participants from the county, Brooksville, Spring Hill Fire Rescue, the Sheriff's Office and the school district.
Equipment for the team is on order, Roberts said, and more than 40 firefighters, utility workers and other employees have been trained to handle materials. Operations should begin about Jan. 1, he said.
"If you stop and think about it, what do we need and what are our priorities? We're starting brand new," Roberts said. "We had to find the best equipment at the best cost."
Also, he said, the county needed to come up with a plan for how to use the team before launching it. All that takes time, Roberts said. "We're moving pretty well."